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AS WILL WOULD SAY, `THE PLAY’S THE THING’ - OR IS IT?

SHARE AS WILL WOULD SAY, `THE PLAY’S THE THING’ - OR IS IT?

It's the sound-bite generation - from speed-dialing to overnight mail to microwave dinners, everything is quicker and snappier.

Stop and smell the roses? We don't have time to pull into the flower shop, much less plant a garden of our own. Of course, we could have a secretary call and order some roses - then she could smell them and fax the results. Or send them by e-mail.Consequently, it's only natural that artists today might feel compelled to reinvent Shakespeare in an attempt to make the Bard more accessible to young people who have no patience with Elizabethan English.

In coming weeks we'll get updated versions of "Twelfth Night," starring Ben Kingsley, Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter, and "Hamlet," an epic adaptation with Kenneth Branagh directing and taking the title role, supported by an all-star cast. Both look quite intriguing from advance materials.

Of course, we'll also get Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard," a semi-documentary exploration of Shakespeare in general, and "Richard III" in particular. But it's really just an egotistical romp for Pacino, requiring, among other things, that the audience suspend disbelief long enough to accept Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder in stilted scenes from the play.

Meanwhile, "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet," a contemporary adaptation of what is arguably the best-known of Shakespeare's works, opened in several Salt Lake theaters Friday.

Whether this "Romeo" is what youngsters need to embrace Shakespeare remains to be seen, however. Will they accept iambic pentameter from warring street gangs who quarrel, fight, shoot at each other and blow things up, while the director zooms in on jittery close-ups of their 9mm handguns, labeled "Sword" and "Rapier"?

From this corner, "Romeo & Juliet" is a major misfire. There are some isolated moments that hold interest, but most of the film is so stylized that it just becomes irritating after awhile - an extreme example of technique overwhelming story and character.

There are even places where the bombastic music and amplified sound effects actually drown out the dialogue!

Think MTV music videos crossed with "NYPD Blue" and multiplied by 10. Instead of bringing a new audience to Shakespeare, this one is more likely to simply alienate the audience that's already out there.

You may be left wondering, "What were they thinking?"

But the question remains, is Shakespeare spinning in his grave? Or, as the filmmakers suggest, would he embrace these 20th-century attempts to "modernize" his works?

Who knows?

But my guess is that the most noted of all cinematic Shakespeare enthusiasts, the late Sir Laurence Olivier, might have been less than thrilled with "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet."

Methinks he might have quoted the Bard thusly: "The play's the thing."

"Romeo & Juliet" director Baz Luhrmann seems to think his zoom lens is the thing.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO & JULIET - * * - Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, Diane Venora; rated PG-13 (violence, vulgarity, partial nudity, drugs); Carmike Cottonwood Mall Theaters; Century 9 Theaters; Cineplex Odeon Broadway Centre, Midvalley and South Towne Center Cinemas.

Look for critics to be widely divided on "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet," with those of us in the dissenting camp being labeled as narrow-minded.

But while it is possible to update Shakespeare successfully - take a look at last year's "Richard III," in which Ian McKellen moved the action to 1930s England, during a fictional Facist coup - "Romeo's" stylized direction is so obnoxiously brash and in-your-face that it just becomes tiresome.

Let's give director Luhrmann this however - he does take risks, avoiding obvious conventions at every turn.

Luhrmann, whose Australian musical-comedy "Strictly Ballroom" was an international hit, takes a chaotic, wild-eyed approach to the material here - so wild-eyed that this film makes "The Rock" look like it was on valium.

In fact, it's so MTV maybe it should be called "Beavis & Butt-Head's Romeo & Juliet."

The setting is "Verona Beach," which is apparently meant to represent modern-day Florida (though it was filmed in Mexico City). The opening sequence sets the stage, as two warring gangs, from the rival Montague and Capulet families, do battle at a gas station. The camera zooms in and out of closeups and long shots, the action shifts between moments that are speeded-up and slow-motion, the dialogue is spewed with so much venom that the actors sometimes literally spit while delivering the thees and thous, and the quick-cut edits are dizzying.

While that's OK for a sequence or two, as Luhrmann is attempting to pull us into the chaos that makes up the lives of these two families, it rarely slows down long enough to let the exposition and Shakespeare's words take hold.

This is even more evident when he does slow down, and the power of the work is allowed to play out in relative calm. Two famous scenes most pointedly demonstrate this - the balcony scene, which Luhrmann stages mostly in a swimming pool, and the death scene, in which Romeo and Juliet are surrounded by candles, as if it's an outtake from "Like Water For Chocolate."

The performances are earnest, and though Leonardo DiCaprio looks a bit frail for the character, his delivery is highly emotional. Even better is Claire Danes as Juliet, luminous in the scene where they meet for the first time, and in perfect pitch most of the way. Also notable are Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence (who wears a huge tattooed cross on his back) and Harold Perrineau as Mercutio (though having him cross-dress for a costume ball is sure to be controversial).

Some of the more seasoned actors here, however, are something else. John Leguizamo as Tybalt is a caricature, Paul Sorvino as the head of the Capulet family is way over the top (especially his ridiculous hispanic accent) and many other familiar faces have little to do besides scowl (Brian Dennehy and M. Emmet Walsh among them).

It's hard not to applaud Luhrmann's intentions in taking such an outrageous stab at a classic piece and hoping to bring in teenage entertainment dollars at the box office.

But like too many movies these days, one wishes he would devote as much attention to developing characters and telling a compelling story as he does setting up fancy camera shots and working out in the editing room.